Breaking Through the Barriers

A colleague alerted me to this gloriously barbed Twitter exchange earlier today:


Jess Wade‘s razor-sharp riposte to Brian Cox was prompted by just how Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has chosen to spend the £2.3M [1] associated with the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics she was awarded today. Here’s the citation for the Prize:

The Selection Committee of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics today announced a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizing the British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her discovery of pulsars – a detection first announced in February 1968 – and her inspiring scientific leadership over the last five decades.

In a remarkable act of generosity, Bell Burnell has donated the entire prize money to the Institute of Physics to fund PhD studentships for, as described in a BBC news article, “women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers.” 

Bell Burnell is quoted in The Guardian article to which Brian refers as follows: “A lot of the pulsar story happened because I was a minority person and a PhD student… increasing the diversity in physics could lead to all sorts of good things.”

As an out-and-proud ‘social justice warrior’, [2] I of course agree entirely.

That rumbling you can hear in the distance, however, is the sound of 10,000 spittle-flecked, basement-bound keyboards being hammered in rage at the slightest suggestion that diversity in physics (or any other STEM subject) could ever be a good thing. Once again I find myself in full agreement with my erstwhile University of Nottingham colleague, Peter Coles:

[1] A nice crisp, round $3M for those on the other side of the pond.

[2] Thanks, Lori, for bringing those wonderful t-shirts to my attention!



Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

One thought on “Breaking Through the Barriers”

  1. There’s a wonderfully self-defeating example of the type of ignorant, overwrought, needlessly emotional reaction to Bell Burnell’s amazing act of kindness and generosity in the replies to Peter’s tweet above:

    It takes a minimal amount of effort to check the gender balance in physics in the UK before spouting off about “boys taking a hit”. ‘thought_farmer’ here hasn’t done his homework. He’s confusing overall gender balance numbers in higher education with those for physics. But then he’s hardly alone in authoritatively trotting out misinformed/uninformed nonsense online.

    What I’ve always found rather amusing is that those who explain away the figures for gender balance in physics (or any other STEM subject) by telling us that women are not naturally “wired” for the subject (or have a mystical genetic/biological preference not to take up physics) don’t use precisely the same reasoning when it comes to the gender balance across higher education as a whole. For the latter, suddenly the “nurture” part of the “nature vs nurture” debate (rightly) moves into sharp focus….


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